Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Cardinals 2015 Preview

2014 Record: 90-72, lost to San Francisco in NLCS 4-1
2014 Runs Scored: 619
2014 Runs Allowed: 603
Additions: Jason Heyward, Jordan Walden, Matt Belisle, Carlos Villanueva, Ty Kelly, Dean Anna, Mark Reynolds
Losses: Oscar Taveras, Daniel Descalso, AJ Pierzynski, Pat Neshek, Shelby Miller, Jason Motte, Mark Ellis, Shane Robinson

The 2014 season was an up and down year for the Cardinals. St. Louis spent much of the season behind the Brewers, until catching them late in the season. They didn't take full possession of first place until September 1st, which they held on to for the rest of the season. The Cardinals also scored 183 less runs in 2014 than they did in the previous season. In fact, the Redbirds only scored 16 runs more than they allowed last season.

Still, the Cardinals beat the favored Dodgers in the Division Series. This included beating NL MVP and three time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw twice in the series. This moved Mike Matheny's squad to the NLCS, where they faced the Giants for the second time in three years. Another dominant lefty awaited, Madison Bumgarner. The Cardinals lost to Bumgarner twice, and loss two more close games to blow the series.

It was a disappointing finish to the season, but the Cardinals went further than many prognosticators predicted them to. Still, this was a team with talented veterans and emerging young talent positioned well for 2015. Then some even worse news hit the Cardinals. Less than two weeks after their elimination, Oscar Taveras died in a car accident in the Dominican Republic. The player who was supposed to be a big part of the Cardinals future was gone.

GM John Mozeliak quickly filled the void early in the offseason. The original plan was to let Taveras and Randal Grichuk compete for the right field job in spring training. With Taveras' death and the team's lack of offense, Mozeliak made a major move. He traded starting pitcher Shelby Miller and pitching prospect Tyrell Jenkins to the Braves for right fielder Jason Heyward and reliever Jordan Walden. This is somewhat of a risky trade considering that Heyward is a year away from free agency, and the years they are giving away from Miller and possibly Jenkins.

Still, Heyward is a big upgrade in the short term. He is the best defensive right fielder in baseball, and will be an offensive upgrade from last year's right field production. Heyward hasn't developed into a superstar, but gets on base, has speed on the basepaths, and has power potential. Walden will be one of Matheny's top setup relievers, and replace Pat Neshek. I would imagine that the Cardinals front office intends to keep Heyward around, and will make a serious effort at that.

Offensively, I would expect this team to improve for 2015. I'm not saying they are going to lead the NL in runs scored like they did in 2013 or 2011. Still, this is a club that underachieved with the bat last year. Matt Carpenter has been this team's sparkplug since taking over the leadoff spot in April 2013. Carpenter had a solid season in 2014, but it was a significant drop off from 2013. Carpenter's line dropped from .318/.392/.481 (average/on base/slugging) in 2013 to .272/.375/.375 in 2014. It might be unrealistic for Carpenter to match his 2013 season, but I would expect him to improve on his numbers for 2015. He showed in the postseason that he can still hit for power. Carpenter had 4 doubles and 4 home runs in 8 playoff games last year.

While Carpenter is the Cardinals catalyst, there are two more important players in their offensive attack, Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina. Holliday struggled in the first half, but had his usual dominant second half. His splits were .265/.373/.389 in the first half, and .281/.367/.515 in the second half. He hit 14 of his 20 home runs in the second half. Holliday is now 35 years old, and may be on a slow decline phase. However, with his strong second half, I have hope that he will have a rebound year in 2015.

Molina suffered a thumb injury that cost him two months last year. It sapped him of his power, but he managed to hit .282 for the season. Maybe, Molina's power days are numbered and he'll never match his totals from 2011 to 2013. Then again, I would chalk that up to injuries. Molina is entering his age 32 season, and has caught a heavy workload during his 11 years in the league. Matheny would be wise to not to ride Molina so hard during the season. Give him an occasional day off, or even give him a spot start at first base on occasions. They need to keep Molina fresh for the postseason.

The Cardinals might have the division's best middle infield. Jhonny Peralta got off to a slow start, but picked it up later in the year. He finished with a club record 21 home runs for a shortstop. He also exceeded expectations on his defense. At second base, Kolten Wong enters the season as the entrenched starter. Wong finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting after hitting .249 with 12 home runs and 20 stolen bases. Wong didn't fully get going last year until after a stint in the minor leagues and the disabled list. With Wong fully confident in his abilities, this could be a breakout season for him.

Another young player the Cardinals are looking for improvement from is Matt Adams. Adams seemed too focused on beating the shift, and it sacrificed his power. He hit only 15 home runs last year, which is two less than he hit in 244 less plate appearances during the 2013 season. The Cardinals are also concerned about his lack of walks. They brought in Mark Reynolds to be a right handed compliment, but the Cardinals need Adams to step up. This is the guy with the most power potential on the team.

At center field, Jon Jay enters the season as the team's starter. Last season, Jay entered the season with an undefined role, but his play pushed his way into the lineup. Jay isn't a flashy defender, doesn't have breakaway speed, nor is he a power hitter, but he does get on base. Peter Bourjos returns after an up and down season last year. Bourjos could be a key contributor this year if he can pick up his hitting. Bourjos has the raw talent that Jay doesn't have, but only hit .234 for the Redbirds last year. He enters the season in a fourth outfielder role.

Matheny has many different options on setting his lineup. Carpenter has been a very good leadoff hitter, but could be moved down to the number 2 or 3 spot, if needed. Jay and Heyward have experience in the leadoff role as well, and there has been rumblings of Wong leading off if he got his OBP up. Heyward may also be a middle of the lineup hitter, if his power increases. Spring training will play a big role on Matheny figuring out the right lineup mix this year. The offense was down last year, but it was league wide. The Cardinals are banking on a rebound this season.

Defensively, this could be one of the best Cardinals teams since the Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen era. Heyward comes with the reputation of an elite defender. When paired with Bourjos in center, the Cardinals would have two outfielders that could cover a ton of ground. Wong and Peralta are very good up the middle. Wong could have a Gold Glove in his future. Carpenter has re-adjusted to his natural position at third base, after some early problems last year. As always, Molina's defensive contributions are vital for this club. He is a great framer of pitches, works good with the young pitching staff, is good at blocking balls in the dirt, and still has a cannon for an arm. He shuts down the opponents running game.

The Cardinals bench will be slightly different this year. Mark Ellis and Daniel Descalso are gone, and the team added a couple of Rule V guys to compete for a utility infield spot with Pete Kozma and Greg Garcia. Shane Robinson was let go in the offseason, and the club could see more of Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty at some point this year. Tony Cruz returns as the backup catcher. Cruz, Bourjos, and Reynolds are locks to make the club, with two bench roles up for grabs.

In the rotation, the Cardinals still have plenty of depth, despite the trade of Miller. Adam Wainwright anchors the staff, and is coming off one of his best years. There are some concerns about his elbow and his inning workload, but Wainwright has proven to be a horse. This is a guy you can count on for 200 plus innings, a sub-3 ERA, and close to 20 wins.

Lance Lynn made a huge step up last season. Lynn won over 15 games for the third straight season, and reached the 200 inning mark for the second straight season. The biggest improvement was Lynn's ERA which dropped to 2.74, which was 9th in the National League. After Lynn, the Cardinals will go with John Lackey in the third spot. Lackey came over in a midseason trade that involved Joe Kelly and Allen Craig last July. He is a veteran presence in the rotation, and is in the final year of his contract.

The Cardinals can probably depend on their first three starters, but there are some question marks in the back end of the rotation. Michael Wacha missed most of the second half due to his shoulder. If Wacha's shoulder is healed, then the Cardinals will be in good shape. The 2013 NLCS MVP was encouraged by a pre-spring training bullpen session. For the fifth spot, it looks like the team will go with Carlos Martinez. Martinez has filthy stuff, but there are questions about his ability to go deeper than 5 innings.

There are some other options if the team needs another starter. The Redbirds were rumored to be in the market for a big name starter in the offseason, but those rumors turned out to be unfounded. Lefty Marco Gonzales will be the first option if another starter is needed. Gonzales won two games out of the bullpen in the NLDS against the Dodgers last fall. He is a fast riser like Wacha, debuting a year after being drafted. Tyler Lyons is another possibility, if needed. Jaime Garcia returns for the final year of his contract, but who knows what to expect from him? Garcia hasn't pitched a full season since 2011. Any contribution Garcia gives should be looked on as a bonus at this point.

The bullpen was somewhat of a trouble spot last year. Trevor Rosenthal epitomized that inconsistency. Rosenthal was dominant in 2013, but was up and down in 2014. Rosenthal blew 6 saves and lost 6 games during 2014. His strikeout rate decreased, and his walk rate increased. The Cardinals desperately need Rosenthal to find his 2013 success.

Jordan Walden was acquired in the Heyward trade, and has closing experience. He was a All Star closer for the Angels in 2011, and has been Craig Kimbrel's top setup man for the past two seasons in Atlanta. Walden will be taking the role that Pat Neshek had last year. Walden looks to be Matheny's insurance in case Rosenthal has any problems this year.

With Martinez moving to the rotation, and Jason Motte also leaving via free agency, that leaves Seth Maness as the lone right handed holdover from last year's bullpen. Matt Belisle and Carlos Villanueva were picked up in the offseason as low cost bullpen options. Mozeliak is hoping that he can find another Neshek. Another option is rookie Sam Tuivailala, who will compete with Belisle and Villanueva for a bullpen job.

From the left side, the team has many options. Veteran Randy Choate returns after a shaky postseason. Sam Freeman had a breakout year last year, after several years of shifting from the minors to the majors. Gonzales could be an option, but the club would prefer him to be in the rotation (which could start him in the minors). Nick Greenwood and Kevin Siegrist are other options for the bullpen. Siegrist is the most intriguing option. He was dominant in 2013, but struggled mightily in 2014. If Siegrist gets it going, then the Cardinals will have a very good late inning option.

The Cardinals enter spring training with a very solid ballclub. There are very few holes, but a couple of potential problem areas. Mozeliak has proven that he will address a need in the middle of the season, if need be. The NL Central is possibly the toughest division in the major leagues right now. The Pirates were a playoff team last year, the Brewers led the division for five months, the Reds won't be as injury bitten, and the Cubs are improving. The Cardinals are one of the most talented teams in the majors, and should make another run at a championship this year.

Expected Lineup

3B Matt Carpenter
RF Jason Heyward
LF Matt Holliday
SS Jhonny Peralta
1B Matt Adams
C Yadier Molina
2B Kolten Wong
CF Jon Jay


CF Peter Bourjos
MI Mark Reynolds
C Tony Cruz
IF Pete Kozma
OF Randal Grichuk/IF Greg Garcia


RH Adam Wainwright
RH Lance Lynn
RH John Lackey
RH Michael Wacha
RH Carlos Martinez/LH Marco Gonzales


RH Trevor Rosenthal
RH Jordan Walden
LH Sam Freeman
LH Randy Choate
LH Kevin Siegrist
RH Seth Maness
RH Matt Belisle/RH Carlos Villanueva

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